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Context Matters: The Endangered Past

Christopher Witmore and Ömür Harmansah (both of Brown University) have responded to the Guennol Lioness story with an interesting piece ("The endangered future of the past", IHT, December 21, 2007). They focus on the issue of how the press has placed an emphasis on the "story", i.e. the history of the piece in recent years. And they touch on the tension between the art world's use of provenance (i.e. does the piece have good pedigree? who owned it?) and the archaeological word's distinction between archaeological context and subsequent history.

They illustrate the importance of context with the example of cuneiform tablets belonging to Ur-Utu who lived at Sippar-Amnanum (modern Tell ed-Der).
According to the Belgian excavators of the site, Ur-Utu kept upwards of 2,000 tablets in his house. When it caught fire, perhaps in 1,629 BC (a year suggested by date of the last tablet in the archive), someone, possibly Ur-Utu himself, attempted to rescue some of the tablets, leaving the remainder of the archive behind.

While fleeing the fire, this person apparently stumbled, dropping the documents in the middle of a room. They lay on the floor for over 3,600 years, until archaeologists unearthed them in the mid 1970s.

The detailed archaeological circumstances in which the Ur-Utu cuneiform tablets were excavated have enabled archaeologists and philologists to carefully trace a captivating set of connections between multiple documents and Ur-Utu's private life.

These documents take us into the intimacies of a landholder's livelihood. Each is set in relation to an archive of harvest accounts kept in a domestic space by a landowning singer. But each can also be a text of contemporary study, an object for museum display, or a document worth risking one's life over.
Witmore and Harmansah remind us how the archaeological context provides a richness to help interpret objects. And they also warn us about the superficiality of "loads of airy suppositions and few concrete associations" when dealing with items stripped of their context.

The assessment is bleak for objects which have been removed from archaeological sites in an unscientific way:
Once excavated, the material past is radically transformed. The damage is irreversible.

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